The experience of caring for her mother during her last days in 2004 had a profound impact on area photographer Susan McConnell. She was the major caregiver for her mom and placed a hospital bed in the family room of her home so that she could attend to her mother’s end of life needs. Knowing that her mom would probably not live to see the holidays, she put up Christmas decorations in November. “We had some very good conversations in those last days and during one of them mom told me that my next photo exhibit should focus on hospice,” McConnell noted. “Being a professional photographer, I knew she was right. Mothers often are,” McConnell stated.
During her mother’s illness, caregivers from Hospice of Northeastern Illinois taught McConnell the skills needed to care for her, skills that would allow her to die with her family around her. “Following my mother’s death, I contacted Carolyn Handler, the President of Hospice of Northeastern Illinois, about the idea of creating a photo collection based on the hospice experience. She agreed right away,” McConnell noted.
For the next year, McConnell followed hospice workers into the homes of those who were about to leave this world. The lighting was often dark, but the attitudes of the people were not. In their last days of life, these people, along with their families, were walking along the path of one of Hospice’s most important goals–adding life to their limited days.
“This photo project became a very personal experience for me,” Ms. McConnell reflected. “I found that while taking photographs, I entered these individuals’ homes not only as a photographer but also as the experienced hand of a caregiver. It healed me, in a way, from the hurt of losing my mother. I cried, I helped, and I held,” she said.
Her most memorable experience came when she took photographs of a two-year-old little girl named Samantha, who was born with cerebral palsy and was dying. “Samantha weighed 14 pounds and she smelled like a baby. She cuddled into my arms, and I held her while her hospice nurse, Molly Montrie, discussed end-of-life issues with her parents,” McConnell noted. “On this dark March afternoon, while I took photographs of Samantha with her parents and with Molly, the sun managed to break through the clouds and flood the room with natural light. Natural light makes the most beautiful photographs, and I put my flash in my pocket.”
Susan McConnell’s experience with Hospice of Northeastern Illinois reflects the kind of care they have been providing for terminally ill patients since their founding in 1982. For the past twenty-four years they have treated thousands of patients in an “in-home” setting working with family members and helping them prepare for the end of life.
Now in partnership with Centegra Health System, an inpatient hospice unit will soon be established at Centegra Memorial Medical Center , South Street in Woodstock , Illinois . The unit will be operated and staffed by Hospice of Northeastern Illinois and housed at the Centegra location. “This is the first unit of its kind in McHenry County ,” noted Carolyn Handler, President of Hospice of Northeastern Illinois. “We are excited about the opportunity this will provide us to care for terminally ill patients in an around-the-clock setting.”
Centegra President and CEO Michael S. Eesley stated that “both organizations are strongly rooted in the community and are deeply committed to their patients’ well being as well as to providing state-of-the art and high quality care. An inpatient hospice unit will help serve the needs of a greater number of people and provide an alternative for some who cannot be managed in a home environment. It allows for more intensive clinical care and is an alternative for patients and families who prefer it. The inpatient unit also keeps patients close to home which is important to us as a community-based healthcare system,” Eesley added.
Annually Hospice of Northeastern Illinois serves over 1300 patients with one-third coming from McHenry County . They have a staff of 140 in addition to over 100 volunteers from the community. Hospice of Northeastern Illinois was founded in 1982 in Woodstock . Centegra Health System was founded in 1914 and serves the healthcare needs of greater McHenry County at 30 locations including acute care hospitals in Woodstock and McHenry. Centegra is the region’s largest employer with over 3100 employees.
The Hospice unit will be housed on the first floor of Centegra Memorial Medial Center South Street and is expected to be operational in early 2007. “We welcome this important new program to our community,” Eesley and Handler stated.